Echinoderms: their culture and bioactive compounds

Prog Mol Subcell Biol. 2005;39:139-65.


Of the five extant classes of echinoderms, it is the sea urchins (Echinoidea) and the sea cucumbers (Holothuroidea) that are both commercially fished and heavily overexploited. In sea urchins, it is the gonad of both males and females, normally referred to as'roe', that is a sought-after food. In the sea cucumber, the principal product is the boiled and dried body-wall or 'bêche-de-mer' for which there is an increasing demand. Many sea urchin and sea cucumber fisheries still have no management system or restrictions in place, and for those that do, the prognosis for catches to continue even at a reduced level is poor. Cultivation of these species increasingly becomes a necessity, both for stock enhancement programs and as a means to meet market demand. Sea urchin culture has been practised on a large scale in Japan for many decades, and effective methods for the culture and reseeding of species in these waters have been long established. Juvenile urchins are produced in their millions in state-sponsored hatcheries, for release to managed areas of seafloor. Outside of Japan, sea urchin cultivation is still a fairly recent practice, less than 10 years old, and largely still at a research level, although a range of species are now being produced in a variety of different culture systems. It is essential that the culture systems are adapted to be species-specific and meet with local environmental constraints. Sea cucumber cultivation originated in Japan in the 1930s and is now well established there and in China. Methods for mass cultivation of the tropical Holothuria scabra are now well established and practised in India, Australia, Indonesia, the Maldives and the Solomon Islands, with the focus of the research effort for both temperate and tropical species being centred on the production of juveniles in hatcheries for the restoration and enhancement of wild stocks. Like many other marine organisms, echinoderms have been, and continue to be, examined as a source of biologically active compounds with biomedical applications. Sea cucumber has been valued in Chinese medicine for hundreds of years as a cure for a wide variety of ailments. Some more recently isolated compounds, mainly from sea cucumbers and starfish, and including those with antitumour, antiviral, anticoagulant and antimicrobial activity are summarised below. When wild stocks decline, the demand created in the market place raises to the price of the product and, consequently, culturing is more likely to become viable economically. As this review shows, there have been dramatic advances in the culture methods of sea urchins and sea cucumbers in the last 10-15 years, to the extent that one can conclude that currently the major obstacles to successful cultivation are indeed economic rather than biological. Hence the future of the echinoculture industry is closely linked to that of the fisheries, whose fate will ultimately determine the market forces that will shape this growing industry.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Echinodermata / metabolism*
  • Echinodermata / physiology*
  • Embryonic Development
  • Fisheries* / economics
  • Gangliosides / metabolism
  • Glycosaminoglycans / metabolism
  • Glycosides / metabolism
  • Models, Biological
  • Reproduction
  • Sea Cucumbers / physiology
  • Sea Urchins / physiology


  • Gangliosides
  • Glycosaminoglycans
  • Glycosides